ST. THEOPHANES THE RECLUSE ON PRAYER
Published January 5, 2009
FROM THE LETTERS OF BISHOP THEOPHANES THE RECLUSE
THE ART AND SCIENCE OF PRAYER (FROM LETTER 15)
You write that you prayed fervently and at once you were calmed, receiving an inner assurance that you would be released from oppression; and then, indeed, it was so….
Recall how you prayed and always strive to pray this way, so that prayer comes from the heart and is not just thought by the mind and chattered by the tongue.
I won’t conceal the fact that, though once you prayed from the heart, it is hardly possible to pray that way constantly. Such prayer is given by God or is inspired by your Guardian Angel. It comes and goes. It does not follow, though, that we should give up the labor of prayer. Prayer of the heart comes when one makes an effort; to those who do not strive, it will not come. We see that the Holy Fathers made extraordinary efforts in prayer, and by their struggles they kindled the warm spirit of prayer. How they came to this prayerful state is illustrated in the writings they have left us. Everything they say about striving in prayer makes up the science of prayer, which is the science of sciences. The time will come when we will study this art [see the classic work The Art of Prayer (Faber & Faber)—webmaster]. But now, since it came up in our correspondence, I touch on it only in passing. Let me add: There is nothing more important than prayer; therefore, our greatest attention and most diligent attention must attend it. Grant us, O Lord, zeal for such an effort!
Wandering Thoughts during Prayer (from Letter 31)
Thoughts wander when one is reading spiritual works and during prayer. What should one do? No one is free from this. There is no sin in it, only vexation. Having wandering thoughts becomes a sin when one willingly allows flightiness of mind. But if thoughts scatter involuntarily, what fault can there be? There is fault, though, when one notices thoughts wandering and, taking no action, one wanders along with them. When we catch our thoughts wandering off, we must bring them back to their proper place at once.
To be free from the tendency to have wandering thoughts during prayer, one must concentrate and pray with warmth. Before prayer, one should prepare for such an effort by making prostrations and by a moment of reflection.
Accustom yourself to pray your own prayers. For instance: it is the essence of evening prayer to thank God for the day and everything that happened, both pleasant and unpleasant; to ask forgiveness for all wrongs committed, promising to improve during the next day; and to pray that God preserve you during sleep. Express all this to God from your mind and from your whole heart.
The essence of morning prayer is to thank God for sleep, rest and regained strength and to pray that He will help us do everything to His glory. Express this to Him with your mind and with your whole heart. Along with such prayers in the morning and evening, present your greatest needs to the Lord, especially spiritual needs. Besides spiritual needs, present your worldly cares, saying to Him as would a child: “See, O Lord, my sickness and weakness! Help and heal!” All this and the like can be spoken before God in your own words, without the use of a prayer book. Try this and, if it works, you may leave the prayer book altogether; but if not, you must pray with the prayer book, otherwise you might end up with no prayer at all.
Spiritual Coldness (from Letter 40)
You have correctly determined that the enemy of our fundamental striving for prayer, and, therefore, our chief enemy, is a [spiritual] cooling. Oh, what a bitter and wretched state it is! But realize that not all decrease in the heat of fervor is pernicious chill. Some comes from weakness, other from disease of the body. Neither is bad; both will pass.
Disastrous cooling down is caused by falling away from God’s will, through our own willful passion for anything ungodly. Willful passion runs counter to our conscience, which tries to enlighten and to keep us from ungodly desires. Willful passion kills the spirit and cuts off spiritual life. This you must fear most of all—as fire, as death itself. Willful passion is caused by a loss of the fear of God and by inattention to oneself. These, then, you must watch for in order to avoid such a terrible evil. As for those times when a cooling down comes involuntarily, due to sickness or weakness of body, one law applies: Endure, without changing your appointed rule, even if it is completely without savor. For those who endure patiently, cold feelings pass, and the usual warm and heartfelt fervor quickly returns.
Please, hold it in your mind and make it a rule, never to let cooling arbitrarily steal away your fervor. In case of unavoidable cooling, make it another rule to drag and to keep dragging through your established prayer rule, with the assurance that this dry performance of deeds will soon bring back life and warmth to your prayer.
Hard Work is Essential (from Letter 48)
You write that you are having trouble controlling your thoughts; they scatter easily, and praying does not proceed as you wish; and that, in the midst of the day, in the midst of toil and association with others, there is little remembrance of God.
Instantaneous prayer life is impossible. You must make a strong effort to control your thoughts, at least to some degree. Prayer does not come about as you expect—by just wishing for it, and, suddenly, there it is. This does not happen.
Forcing Oneself to Pray (same Letter)
You have the book of discourses by St. Macarius of Egypt. Kindly read the 19th discourse, concerning a Christian’s duty to force himself to do good. There it is written, “One must force oneself to pray, even if one has no spiritual prayer.” And, “In such a case, God, seeing that a man earnestly is striving, pushing himself against the will of his heart (that is, his thoughts), He grants him true prayer.” By true prayer, St. Macarius means the undistracted, collected, deep prayer that occurs when the mind stands unswervingly before God. As the mind begins to stand firmly before God, it discovers such sweetness, that it wishes to remain in true prayer forever, desiring nothing more.
I have stated more than once exactly what efforts must be made: Do not allow your thoughts to wander at will. When they do involuntarily escape, immediately turn them back, rebuking yourself, lamenting and grieving over this disorder. As St. John of the Ladder says, “We must lock our mind into the words of prayer by force. “
When you have learned the prayers by heart, as I suggested in my earlier letter, perhaps then you will progress more smoothly.
The most helpful idea is to attend church frequently. There, prayers come more readily because all is directed to that end, but this is not very practicable for you. So, labor at home to accustom yourself to pray attentively and try to remain in God’s presence the rest of the time, as much as possible.
When memorizing the prayers, do not forget to dig into the meaning and to experience the feeling in each word. Then when you say the prayer, the words themselves will hold your attention and warm you into a prayerful attitude.
Nurturing the Desire for God (from Letter 51)
Do you wish to enter Paradise more quickly? This is what you must do: When you pray, do not complete your prayer before arousing in your heart some feeling toward God—reverence, loyalty, thanksgiving, exaltation, humility, contrition, or assurance and hope in God…
Carelessness and Presumption in Prayer (from Letter 71)
Well, where has your prayer vanished? It seems to have started off quite well, and you had already experienced its grace-filled actions in your heart. I will tell you where it has gone. Having prayed once or twice with warmth and in earnest, and having experienced such immediate help through prayer at the shrine of St. Sergius, you thought your prayer was forever established, and that there was no need to maintain it. You thought it would flow by itself. Expecting prayer to continue on its own, you began to rush and carelessly left your thoughts to wander unchecked. From this, your attention scattered, thought went in all directions, and your prayer was no longer true. Once, twice in such a careless manner, and prayer disappeared. Begin anew to establish prayer and plead with the Lord to help you.
Haste in Prayer (from the same Letter)
I presume that you negligently rushed to complete your prayer rule, just to get by. Make it a rule, from now on, never to pray negligently. Nothing is more offensive to God than this. It is better to leave out part of your prayer rule and to complete the remainder reverently and with fear of God, than to do the whole prayer rule, and do it negligently. It is even better to read but one prayer, or fall on your knees and pray in your own words, than to pray negligently. If you pray carelessly, there will be no fruit.
Give yourself a thorough reprimand for such carelessness. Let this be clear to you: No one who prays earnestly and with attention ends prayer without feeling the effect of prayer. Oh, of what a blessing we deprive ourselves by allowing negligence in prayer!
The Need for Prayer (Letter 79)
All is from God. To Him we must flee. And you write that you don’t pray.
Smart-aleck! Have you joined the ranks of the infidels, or what? How is it possible that you don’t pray? Don’t just read the appointed prayers; speak in your own words and tell Him what is in your heart; ask for help! “See, Lord, what troubles me?…this and this… I can’t straighten myself out. Help, All-Merciful One!” Mention every little thing and plead for everything’s appropriate cure. This will be true prayer. You may always pray your own prayers, as long as there is no backsliding into sloth.
From Orthodox Life, vol. 32, no. 4 (July-August, 1982), pp. 21-30. Translated from the Russian by Fr. Stefan Pavlenko.